Learning with a Sensory Processing Disorder
By: Anne Archer | Date: March 6 2017
The first-grade classroom is bursting with activity: girls crawling around on the floor playing ‘puppies’, boys building and destroying Lego towers, and a small group drawing and playing with Play-Doh at the craft table.
Asher, my six-year-old son, sits at his desk with headphones covering his ears in an attempt to block out the noise. He is trying to finish his math assignment. Connor, Asher’s paraeducator, sits in the child size chair next to Asher coaching him along. Asher tries to focus on his work but the external stimuli surrounding him make it a challenge.
At first glance Asher is like his first-grade classmates but educators quickly learn two things: one, he has sensory processing disorder and two, he has a learning difference that makes it difficult for him to process and integrate information as fast as his peers.
“I’m the only one the homework is hard for,” he’ll say each night at the dining room table while we’re working on his math assignment or practicing his sight words.
This is unlikely to be true but to feel that way causes Asher a considerable amount of anxiety. Most days his anxiety, coupled with his sensory processing difficulties, runs his life from waking up in the morning, transitioning through school, attending after school activities, to bedtime. Some days are better than others but not a single day goes by when Asher feels 100% in control of himself or his surroundings.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is defined by Roya Ostovar, Ph.D., in her book, The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder, as an inefficiency in our central nervous system to process information, namely incoming stimuli. Our nervous system organizes the familiar senses – touch, hearing, sight, taste and smell – but it also helps organize the vestibular sense, which lets us know where our body is in space and the proprioceptive sense, which lets us know what position our body is in. Roya Ostovar goes on to say SPD can also hinder our emotional, internal and regulatory senses thus hampering our ability to calm down, fall asleep or handle anxiety.
SPD symptoms present in a variety of ways including hyper and hypo sensitivities to the familiar senses, poor fine and gross motor skills, lethargy, hyperactivity, and anxiety. With such a broad range of symptoms, sometimes conflicting symptoms, it’s no wonder educators aren’t sure what’s going on with children suffering from SPD.
Often times when a child with SPD is either seeking out or avoiding stimuli in the classroom, they can have a difficult time sitting still, paying attention, or controlling their emotions. Because of this, it is not uncommon for them to be labeled as children with behavioral problems.
This was a label I feared would be placed on Asher so before he started preschool I took him to meet the preschool teacher Kathy, a veteran early childhood educator. We discussed Asher’s challenges and decided to have him visit the classroom several times during the summer so he could become comfortable in the new setting. Once a week he’d go to the preschool room where he would play with the toys and listen to Kathy read him stories while she rubbed his back.
Asher was able to function in the classroom until preschool started. Then, with twelve other children running around the once quiet room, Asher withdrew. He refused to touch wet things like paint, glue or messy snacks. Whenever a child came close to him he’d stick out his arms to block the child from touching him.
“They move too fast,” he would say.
When I left the classroom Asher cried. This is not unusual but most children will stop crying within five minutes. Asher couldn’t stop crying even after forty-five minutes. So, I stayed with him in the classroom.
Eventually, I was able to distance myself from Asher during the school day. He started settling into his new surroundings and he began to feel as comfortable as his body and mind would allow. The process took three months and would not have been possible without an understanding, caring teacher.
Working with Kathy taught me the importance of parents communicating with educators and the benefits of parents forming partnerships with schools. I learned I had to get Asher’s past, present, and future teachers on his side. Fortunately, Asher is a sweet boy who is not disruptive to the class but he has special needs. Asher’s success in kindergarten relied on my involvement and Kathy’s involvement so I brought Kathy to Asher’s new school to explain Asher’s SPD, his anxiety, and to share with the educators what she found helped him in the classroom.
The transition from preschool to kindergarten was easier but not smooth. Asher’s SPD was apparent in preschool but his learning differences were not. The introduction of academics and a new routine were overwhelming. Seeking stimuli, he’d chew on his shirts so ferociously his entire front would be soaked with saliva and torn to shreds by the end of the school day. The frustration of too much stimuli made Asher cry and he had to leave the classroom several times a day to regain composure.
“I don’t know what the teacher means,” Asher would lament.
His fear of being wrong controlled his thoughts.
Early in the school year his kindergarten teacher, Joy, discovered Asher was having a difficult time processing directions. This difficulty was hindering him from becoming an independent learner. Because of this, Joy thought it might be best for Asher to repeat kindergarten. However, Asher’s connection to his ten classmates, half of which he’s known since preschool, caused Joy and I to wonder if separating him from his peers was the right choice.
“I like them. I love them,” Asher says every time I ask him about his classmates.
Most children with SPD have a strong need for routine and continuity and Asher is no different. This need made me worry that separating him from his classmates would be confusing and devastating.
But more importantly, Asher is a bright boy. He just needs more time, minutes not seconds, to understand what is being asked of him. These few extra minutes didn’t seem like a good reason to hold Asher back. Joy agreed so we decided to move him to first grade with a paraeducator who could help guide him through the day.
Asher is observant, perceptive and empathetic, all invaluable traits in the real world but his SPD and learning differences make it tough for him to succeed in the academic world. He sees things differently than others and this affects his learning. Asher doesn’t understand why he struggles in school but now that he’s in first grade he’s starting to notice.
“I feel left out when they read chapter books and I have to leave the classroom because I can’t read chapter books,” he says.
When I asked him how he feels about the way he learns he said, “It’s weird. I mean, I go to the gym to dribble a ball.” Asher’s referring to a technique his paraeducator introduced. He dribbles a ball while working on word sounds. It has proven helpful.
Running also helps Asher and fortunately, he has a runner’s build: long, lean legs and a slight frame. He uses these features to run nonstop, begging whoever is near him to race. His brown, wavy hair reflects his constant movement; looking as if he just ran away from a tornado.
His need for movement can make it difficult for him to focus in the classroom but he’s learning techniques to help him cope. And, as the school year goes on, Marilyn, Asher’s first-grade teacher, is also learning techniques which help her decide when she needs to back off and when she can push him a little harder. During our parent-teacher conference she relayed a story.
“During language arts I asked Asher what sound the letter g makes and to give me some examples of words that start with the letter g. He quickly responded with his usual ‘I don’t know’ but I pushed him a little. He paused. Then he answered correctly and all his classmates cheered for him. He beamed.”
Everyone agrees Asher has made tremendous progress in the last three years; from not leaving my side and chewing holes in his shirts to being fully engaged in school and working hard in his academics. The school’s dedication to his education and well-being, along with my involvement, demonstrates the importance of teamwork amongst educators and parents.
As we look forward to second grade, I’m happy to say Asher will be there with his classmates. Connor, who has proven invaluable, will be there, too. School will never be easy for Asher. He’ll always have SPD. He’ll always have a learning difference. But he’ll also always be uniquely Asher – my brave, beautiful boy.
Asher finishes his math assignment with help from Connor. He walks, shoulders slumped forward due to low muscle tone, to the art table. He sits at the end and opens a container of washable orange paint. He holds the paint brush in his left fist and jams it into the paint container. His strokes crisscross over computer paper then they turn into circles until eventually the entire white page is covered in orange.
When he’s done, he smiles.
“Time to pack up,” Marilyn calls out.
Asher helps clean up the art table. He puts his homework, empty lunch box, and coat into his blue duffle bag with his name embroidered on the side. He waits by the door, like he’s told, until all his classmates are ready to leave. Single file the children walk out the door to meet their parents.
About the Author
Anne Archer gave up the exciting world of public accounting to raise her stubborn, yet delightful boy. She writes “The Savvy Shopper” feature for her local newspaper and has contributed to BLUNTmoms. She shares her stories on her Facebook page www.facebook.com/ReallyPeople